John Bunny (1863-1915) was America’s first comedy star, and the first in that long line of beloved comedy fat men, a lineage that would include Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley, among many others.
Often paired with the thin-as-a-rail Flora Finch, the couple formed a sort of Sprat family in reverse and ruled the comic cinema from 1909 through Bunny’s death in 1915.
Born this day in 1863, Bunny started out in a minstrel show** in the early 1880s. This was a springboard into legit acting with stock companies. By the aughts, he was Broadway comedy star. In 1909 he began his successful association with Vitagraph. His last major project was a touring vaudeville show called Bunny in Funnyland that was not a hit, despite its advertised troupe of midgets. Bunny was taken in 1915, brought down by a liver complaint, which has been known to strike more than few bibulous showfolk over the years.
I strongly encourage you to watch Bunny’s films on Youtube. He was not just a great comedian but a great artist, and he has immense power to entertain even now, over a century later. Films like Troublesome Secretaries (1911), A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), and a 1913 version of The Pickwick Papers remain a joy to watch after all this time. Also, you will find a couple of enjoyable short documentaries about the comedian, again well worth watching.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.